Sarah Vine in the Times (£) says something quite remarkably stupid. Commenting on the IFS’s research showing that people born in August tend to do less well at school than those born in September, she writes:
Some of the cleverest, most confident people I know are August babies…All of which just goes to show you can’t take statistics too seriously.
You don’t need me to tell you what’s wrong with this. The IFS research points to smallish differences in average attainment. This is entirely consistent with some (many) August babies doing well.
The problem lies not in taking statistics too seriously, but in not taking them seriously enough.
Of course, pointing out that a newspaper columnist is writing rubbish is as revelatory as noting the religion of the Pope or ursine defecatory habits. But because columnists are paid to echo the prejudices of their readers, I fear that Ms Vine’s remarks are significant, and depressing, in two ways.
First, they indicate a philistinistic anti-intellectual culture, which elevates ego over rational inquiry: “never mind your evidence and hard work, just look at me and my chums.” This attitude naturally retards the growth of public knowledge about social affairs. As I’ve said before, what we need is a campaign for social science.
Secondly, there is a class aspect here. Ms Vine ignores the fact that the odds are biased against August babies and so invites readers to believe that their relative (average) lack of educational attainment is their own fault. And this error generalizes. Some inequalities do their damage by working as statistical tendencies - for example, people from poor homes are more likely to suffer ill-health and less likely to do well at school. Relying on anecdotal evidence can serve to disguise these tendencies: “When I was at Oxford I once met someone from a poor home.” In doing so, the costs of disadvantage are diminished.
In this sense, an ignorance of the very basics of social science can serve a reactionary function. Rejecting empirical enquiry means accepting the prejudices that sustain inequality.